Most of these people, it’s fair to say, were not planning on a sudden death. Many died alone in hospitals, and too often they didn’t have the opportunity to bid loved ones farewell. Caring.com reported that before the pandemic hit, fewer than half those 55 and older had completed estate-planning documents (such as a will, a living will, and designating a medical power of attorney). Among those 18 to 34, it was a paltry 16 percent.
The No. 1 reason for everyone: I haven’t gotten around to it.
Covid-19 has claimed the lives of several people I know in recent months; sadly, they weren’t the only deaths in my personal and aging circle. Barry Owen, 67, a friend and former partner, died of pancreatic cancer in May, a year after being diagnosed. Shortly after being told he had Stage 4 of the disease, he posted on his Caring Bridge site, “To borrow a line from ‘Grass,’ a favorite childhood poem by Carl Sandburg: ‘What place is this? Where are we now?’ ”
That question — “Where are we now?” — resonated for me as the pandemic spread unabated. Who knows when the bell will toll for thee?
Actually, I’m not alone in having jump-started my death planning.
Recently, the New York Times reported on just such a “boom” due to the pandemic. So many questions. Who do I want to act as my medical power of attorney? Why do I need a living will? Do I want to be cremated or not? What songs do I want played at my funeral?
Not surprisingly, there are now new Web services — with checklists — specifically for this kind of planning. One of them, Lantern, whose mission is to be “the single source of guidance for navigating life before and after a death,” reported a more than 120 percent increase in users since the beginning of the pandemic.
With the obituary pages growing ever thicker these days, I’m reminded of the nadir of the HIV epidemic when gay men dropped out of sight only to turn up in a death notice soon after. In 1986, at age 29, I’d been given an AIDS diagnosis, then synonymous with a death sentence. Fortunately, it turned out the doctors had erred in making my diagnosis. But during those weeks when I feared dying, I began to make an end-of-life plan.
I didn’t get far. I got only as far as engaging a lawyer to draw up a will when I learned that my lesion was not Kaposi’s sarcoma, one of the cancers associated with AIDS. No longer facing an untimely death, I put my head back in the sand — which is to say I stopped responding to his emails — and the lawyer actually fired me as an unresponsive client. When I pleaded for one more chance, he gave it to me and I completed my first “Last Will and Testament,” and a living will, too, that detailed what medical treatments I wanted — and would forgo — if I could no longer give consent myself.
In 2006, I added a codicil to that first will when I bought a house with my partner, Jim. Oh, and I designated him as my medical power of attorney, bumping my sister down to the “backup” position.
Still, as I crossed the threshold to 50 and then again to 60, I made no other plans. In 2018, a year after Jim and I legally separated (we’d married in 2013), a new lawyer castigated me for taking no action. By leaving things as they were, my soon-to-be-ex would still inherit my part of our house equity (rather than my siblings) and he’d be making life and death decisions for me in the event I was incapacitated. (Yikes!)
Again, I found myself stuck in denial — over the failed marriage, and that like everyone else I’d die one day, too.
By nature I am a procrastinator, but this pandemic — all those deaths — has forced a new reality on me. In recent months, I’ve taken various steps to make sure I’m ready — or at least “readier” — for what my friend and literary agent Richard Pine likes to call, “The End.”
My will and living will are now updated. (I got rid of all mention of my ex in estate finances or end-of-life decisions.) In our family cemetery plot, I’ve chosen my place, and there are new notes in a manila folder for a memorial service and an obituary, although I’ve not actually written a draft like other really well-prepared friends I know. With a nod to Leona Helmsley and her much-spoiled Maltese, my new puppy will go to previously agreed-on guardians, along with a crate, some kibble and some money to cover future costs.
If anything, like others these days, I’ve come to understand the importance of getting one’s affairs in order. Greg Brock, 67 and a retired journalist, frets about having unfinished business, especially after his sister “dropped dead” a year ago.
“It was a shock, and her children were left with so many headaches with her estate, including no funeral plans,” he said.
Since then Brock has vowed to get his “act together, starting with the end.” He has bought a gravesite and is now ordering the headstone, which he admits “will be weird.” He hopes that looking at his headstone will spur him on “to organize other aspects of my life.” Good luck, friend.
I’m impressed by those I know who have such lofty but wise intentions: To set things in order sooner than later. But “why do today what I can do tomorrow?” has long been one of my favorite mantras.
Well, I’ve now ditched that aphorism, thanks to Marie Kondo, author of the best-selling “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” I’ve gone though much of my stuff — applying her “delight test” — jettisoning and donating shirts and sheets, pots and pans, and bed linens and bandannas. (Although, had I known the pandemic would be still with us, I would have saved all those old bandannas to be used as masks/face coverings.)
The pandemic has also prompted me to say things I might not otherwise have. I’ve been making it a point to acknowledge those whom I love in a forthright manner, which has brought about reciprocal responses.
At the outset of the pandemic, I emailed Barry Owen a short note; at the time he appeared to be holding steady. I reminded him of our mutual friend, Denise Kessler, and explained that about the time she turned 90, we both “began ending all of our conversations with “I love you.” She and I continued that ritual until two weeks before she died at age 98, I wrote Barry, ending with the same message to him, “I love you.”
In his reply, he updated me on his condition. “No news is good news, which is to say, I’m still here.” He explained that he and Dan, his husband, “speak frankly with each other about death and what is it called? Oh yeah, end-of-life planning. But we don’t dwell on my condition or the future. We live our shared lives as normally as possible.”
And then he signed the email, “Love, Barry.”
In his final weeks, Barry completed the necessary to-dos in preparation of his death, his husband told me. And then he died, a year after his diagnosis, and a week after his first wedding anniversary.
By the time of his death, three months into the pandemic, I had finished my own death planning. I am prepared — but not ready to go.
Where to get help online
For those who need help getting started, here are some resources:
●Lantern (lantern.co) is a free website with checklists and articles about end-of-life preparations.
Everplans (everplans.com) is a subscription-based online product for creating, organizing and storing your end-of-life plan.
The Conversation Project (theconversationproject.org) is a website focused on helping people talk about their wishes for end-of-life care.